Friday, March 5, 2010

The Birth of a Blockhead

This month, I happily cede my space on this blog to a friend and former Scholastic colleague, Joe (Joseph) D'Agnese, in honor of the upcoming publication of his long-awaited picture book, Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci (Holt BYR) on March 30. Enjoy!
--Sue Macy

I have a confession to make. I don't belong here. I wanted to write a nonfiction book, honest, but something got the better of me: a divine being more powerful than us all.

In 1996, I was floundering with a manuscript on the life of the medieval mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, better known as Fibonacci. Leonardo helped convert Europe from I-II-III to 1-2-3, and bequeathed to us the world's most important nonentity:
zero. Without it, we'd have no concept of place value. He is best known for a problem about multiplying rabbits, and the number pattern derived from it called the Fibonacci Sequence.

My dilemma was two-fold: First, Leonardo never knew that Fibonacci numbers recur in nature. Either I wrote about Fibonacci or I wrote about the Sequence. I had trouble unifying the two because it didn't happen that way.

Second, facts on Leonardo's life are sparce: He grew up in Pisa, sailed to Algeria to keep his merchant father's accounts, and later traveled the world studying mathematics. A few of his math tomes have survived, but they tell us little of his internal life. To write a picture book about him, one ought to know what made him tick.

What, I wondered, drives a person to chase numbers across the seas?

I was intrigued by Leonardo's Latin nickname, Bigollus. A funny name could make a good book title, but I couldn't find an authoritative translation. The Fibonacci Association offered an expert. I dreaded making that call. I'm not a mathematician. Indeed, who was I to write such a book?

Herta Taussig Freitag, a professor emeritus of mathematics, took the call in Virginia. She had a thick German accent, and proved to be a delightful, friendly, patient person who was tickled to be speaking with a (then) editor of a math magazine for children. She had wanted to be a teacher of mathematics since age 12. We had a long chat, and she reassured me that no one was satisfied with the translation of Fibonacci's nickname. It could mean "wanderer," "daydreamer," or "absent-minded." The words seemed in line with modern stereotypes of academics.

Days later, a note from the professor came in the mail. "As I have said over the phone," it read in part, "I feel like praising you and thanking you for doing such valuable service to our Goddess Mathesis!"

The note cheered me. Mathesis is a feminine divine creature said to inspire math scholars. She inspired me now: What if Fibonacci knew the secret of his famous numbers all along? What if this book was in fact his sly manifesto written only for children?

I've never told anyone the secret of my numbers, he could say, but now I've told you.

Having Fibonacci speak directly to the reader could make the book playful. Kids--not to mention a certain octogenarian academic--might like it. The manuscript came together nicely, and a year or so later, Holt offered to publish it. I called it Blockhead. An illustrator got to work on the sketches. I phoned the professor to tell her the news. It had been a while since our first talk, and her fragile voice spoke volumes. I rang off, apologizing for disturbing her. She and I never spoke again. She died in 2000 at the age of 91.

Soon after, the book became a problem project, dragging on for years with little progress. Finally, the illustrator quit, forcing us to start from scratch. All told, the book took fourteen years to come to fruition. I was frustrated and angry, but now consider myself fortunate. I had time to polish the prose, understand my hero, and learn about the woman who brought Mathesis to my doorstep.

Professor Freitag had earned a degree in mathematics in Austria, but fled her homeland after Hitler's invasion. For six years, she put her dream of teaching on hold while working as a domestic in England, angling for a visa to the USA. She finally came by freighter. She earned her PhD at Columbia University at age 45. She built the math department at Hollins University in Roanoke, and for decades inspired young women. She published papers well into her last decade, gave a "last lecture" for 20 years, and never missed a meeting of the Fibonacci Association. (This color photo of her was taken in Lucca, Italy, during a conference at Leonardo's hometown, Pisa.)

How can I complain about a book's long genesis? Imagine leaving your home forever, and putting your career on hold for six years while you worked as a chambermaid. How many of us would have given up? Yet she clung to her passion.

With time I came to understand him through her. A young boy boards a medieval ship and sets sail on a journey to a faraway land. A young woman steps on a freighter bound for New York with only $10 in her purse. I picture them both and know they are plying the seas toward something only they can hear: the ancient call of Mathesis.

I now believe that Mathesis speaks to us all. She is Passion, Inspiration, Imagination, and she strikes young and old alike. Hand a book to a child and you never know what will enchant them. With her voice in their ears, some kids chase math, others art, still others music, rocks, dance, nuclear physics, whatever. She goes by various names, but she is the same goddess.

You can download a bibliography of other Fibonacci books for kids and a Fibonacci scavenger hunt on the teacher page of Joe's website.


Unknown said...

What a great post! Who says that the real world isn't at least as fascinating as fiction! The scope of Fibonacci numbers in nature is breathtaking. Nature invented the sequence but only us humans can perceive it and see its beauty. Romance is truly alive in math.
Thank you, Joe, and thanks to Sue for bringing this to us.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

To me, this piece demonstrates how wide and deep the creative process is. Thanks Joe, for your essay and your book.

Sarah Campbell said...

I enjoyed reading this story of your path to publication with Blockhead. It's long gestation period makes it seem an even unliklier coincidence that Fibonacci would be the subject of two nonfiction March 2010 releases. I look forward to reading Blockhead!

Karen Romano Young said...

I can't wait to read your book, but I really loved this post, too. You're such a good storyteller, and the layers in this tale are intriguing. Thanks for guesting! Please come again! And good luck with your cool book.

Deborah Heiligman said...

Bravo to you, Joe, for hanging in there! I hear it's a great book! I, too, have a book about a mathematician in the works--Paul Erdos... It, too, is taking a while, and there's an older female mathematician I am praying will still be around to hold the book in her hands. Meanwhile, I think I will have to send her yours...which I have can't wait to read. Bravo to you and Blockhead!

Carmela Martino said...

Fascinating story. I can relate as I'm struggling to write a biography of a mathematician, too. You give me hope. :-)

Deiter said...

Great piece. I look forward to finding the book. And any kid's lit writer/illustrator who gives up w/o putting in 14 years probably doesn't deserve to be published! Sounds like Herta Taussig Freitag deserves a picture book of her own!